Jim is the chief mate on board the Patna, an old ship, carrying 800 Moslem pilgrims in the Arabian Sea. He is young, idealistic, and a dreamer of heroic deeds. One night the Patna runs over some floating wreckage and its forepeak compartment is damaged. The damaged part is sure to give in to the pressure of the sea water and the ship will eventually sink. The four crew abandon the ship leaving the sleeping pilgrims to their fate. Jim hesitates between his idealism and the prospect of being killed by the pilgrims even before the sea can swallow him alive. Finally he too joins the escaping crew. Ironically the ship is saved by another vessel which happens to come along. Later Jim is put on trial. His offence is obvious; he is declared a coward and his license is cancelled. Jim’s heroic, romantic dreams crumble. It is only the society that can make you a hero and that society will hereafter see him as a brazen coward.
A man called Marlow, who was present at Jim’s trial, sees something unique in Jim and helps him. Marlow arranges a job for Jim at a remote trading station in Patusan. Jim’s efforts to create order and well being in the chaotic community in that place makes him a hero eventually. The people call him Tuan, Lord. Thus Jim becomes Lord Jim.
Gentleman Brown and his gang of thieves attack the village to plunder it. The marauders are cornered by the people. But Jim intercedes and pleads against the killing of the thieves. He pledges his own life against the departure of the gang. But it is naive to expect a bunch of marauders to honour their promise. Romantic people tend to be naive. Jim is a romantic. Gentleman Brown turns treacherous and a massacre follows.
Jim is advised by Jewel, the woman who is in love with him, as well as a native servant to fight or flee. Jim cannot flee anymore. Where will he flee now from this land of his romantic dreams? Moreover, a time comes to every person when he has to stop fleeing and start facing himself. Jim has to prove his worth to himself; he has to find the honour within himself. It’s not enough to be a temporary hero before a society.
Jim surrenders before the village chief. He is shot dead.
This is the story in brief of Joseph Conrad’s novel, Lord Jim (published in 1900).
As a student of literature two decades ago, I saw Lord Jim as a tragic hero, though a naive one. Now, as a student of psychology, I think Jim’s mistake lay in making wrong choices. As a young man, when he was undergoing training as a marine officer, he saw a sinking ship and chose not to join the group that volunteered to save the people from the ship. Later he rationalised his action and said that it was not a challenging enough task for him and he would certainly prove his heroism when a more challenging situation demanded it. Jumping the Patna, leaving 800 pilgrims to certain death, was another wrong choice, wrong even by his professional ethics, let alone human morality. Finally, after he had achieved his dream of becoming a hero, he made another wrong choice: pleading for a gang of plunderers.
Jim also did not take responsibility for his choices in the first two instances. He rationalised his mistake. In the second instance he put the blame squarely on the others by saying that he had no choice given what the other crew had done.
Making mistakes is not a tragedy. Not learning the lesson from the mistake can be a tragedy. Jim’s tragedy comes from his unwillingness or inability to look within and analyse himself as objectively as an individual can do. It is difficult for a romantic with dreams of perfection to look within and accept his blemishes. Yet there is no solution other than that introspection. Even spirituality cannot redeem the individual unless spirituality engenders introspection.
Shorn of that introspection, the individual will only sink deeper. “It was as if I had jumped… into an everlasting deep hole,” as Jim says himself about his abandoning the Patna. He continued to sink, metaphorically. He continued to sink because he never cared to look within and ask himself why he was doing what he was doing. Had he looked within, he would have probably realised that real heroism does not come from outside. One can only be a real hero to oneself. And when one indeed becomes a real hero to oneself, the society is likely to perceive that heroism, the qualities, and acknowledge it. However, the acknowledgement of the society is not the concern of a real hero. The only concern of the real hero is his integrity, his “fidelity” (to use Conrad’s own word) to himself.
In one of his letters, Conrad wrote: “Everyone must walk in the light of his own heart’s gospel. No man’s light is good to any of his fellows. That’s my creed from beginning to end…. Another man’s truth is only a dismal lie to me.”
Real heroism is walking in the light of one’s own heart’s gospel. Borrowed light(s) can lead one to pits of darkness.
No wonder Jewel, the person who loved Jim the most, says in the end that she can never forgive him because “You are false!”
Jim was false only because he was walking in the light of a romantic dream.
There are far more common things in the human world than romantic dreams which people choose as their guiding lights!
Author’s note: A few months ago I wrote another blog based on Conrad’s novel, The Heart of Darkness. In case you are interested: The Ghost of Kurtz